Wikipedia entered 2010 under a new policy. At its founding in 2001, Wikipedia allowed anybody to post and modify content. Recently, Wikipedia stopped anonymous users from entering new articles. Now it is requiring editorial review on any articles about living people.
“We are no longer at the point that it is acceptable to throw things at the wall and see what sticks,” said Michael Snow, chairman of the board of Wikimedia. Reversing its view that anyone had a right to modify entries, only experienced and trusted editors will now be gatekeepers.
Any new U.S. entries by non-editors will be flagged and not available until approval. This procedure will be applied for articles on living people first; false and malicious information there can cause harm. The German version of Wikipedia currently uses approved editors to inspect submitted changes on all topics.
It has been easy to insert false information—a fact well know to the audience of the cable comedy show The Colbert Report (Colbert suggested listeners increase the numbers of elephants in Africa to an astronomical number on Wikipedia). However, some contributors have simply entered information that was wrong or with possible malicious intent. Entries for Senators Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd were altered last January 20 reporting that they had died. Another entry incorrectly linked a writer to the John and Robert Kennedy assassinations.
While this new policy may keep away lawsuits, the quality of Wikipedia remains a concern for school teachers at all levels. Over 60 million Americans click on Wikipedia entries each month. A large number are students.
Students use Wikipedia as a convenience—you can click and retrieve a lot of information after you have put off to the last moment actually doing some substantial research in the library. But Wikipedia is very uneven in the quality of its entries. If a bonafide scholar has decided to be a contributor, the entry can approach an academic treatise in accuracy. Other entries are neither accurate nor complete.
I recently handed my students two unlabeled versions on the same topic, one by an authority and the other from Wikipedia—both in the same font and format. Every student easily separated them. The Wikipedia entry stood out as a sort of “pop” account while the academic version was obviously “deeper” in understanding.
Wikipedia has made a big deal about avoiding “POV” or point of view. But there is no way to avoid a “point of view.” All words and phrases are more or less value-laden. What you want is a point of view from a scholar who has carefully studied the field.
Sensitive to quality concerns, Wikipedia added “citation needed” to the end of any un-cited sentence. This is not a bad trend if it eventually directs the reader to the authoritative source. But it is that source that the student should be reading and citing.
I am often asked by my teaching colleagues in the field how to instruct students about Wikipedia. I point them to colleagues at the history department at Middlebury College. They voted recently to bar students from citing Wikipedia as a source. Professor Don Wyatt, chair of history, explained: “As educators, we are in the business of reducing the dissemination of misinformation. Even though Wikipedia may have some value, particularly from the value of leading students to citable sources, it is not itself an appropriate source for citation.”